We’re quite close to summer movie season now. I wasn’t going to waste my time and money with Hellboy this week. You shouldn’t either. Instead, let’s examine the best Marvel film of last year.
AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR
“We don’t trade lives, Captain.”
At the center of this wonderfully steady film is a profound question, one that echoes in our world too. How valuable is a life? Would you sacrifice someone, or even a whole group of lives, to save everyone else?
This ethical dilemma has led to so much spilled ink over the centuries. But this film knows our moment, I think. It realizes the nature of our world, how fallen it is, and how bereft of a public moral compass we suddenly are. So it throws that into stark relief by casting Thanos, the behind-the-scenes machinator of the entire Marvel saga, as the protagonist. This is a masterstroke. Here’s why.
A protagonist in a story isn’t necessarily the good guy. It’s just another name for the main character, the one whose decisions and actions drive the plot. The world reacts to what they do. They shift things.
Thanos is unquestionably that person for most of this movie. The through line here is his quest to gather the Infinity Stones and extinguish half of all life in the galaxy, in order to make sure everyone has enough resources to live well. But again, the protagonist is not necessarily the good guy. This was the mistake that somecritics made, fueled by Josh Brolin’s odd contention that the big purple meanie he’s playing is doing things that “[make] sense, if you break it down.”
Infinity War‘s Thanos is the bad guy. But the fact that many considered him compelling because “he kinda has a point about overpopulation” says something.
Opposing his view is the conviction of Doctor Strange, Captain America, Gamora, and our other heroes. It’s beautifully expressed by the first quote in this article, uttered by Captain America in opposition to killing good robot Vision to prevent Thanos from achieving his ends. Even one innocent life lost to prevent evil is too many.
This rock solid principle colors Cap’s conviction in Civil War that those who can defend the innocent have a responsibility to do so, to refuse to be bound by those who might prevent them from saving others. If innocent people get unavoidably caught in the crossfire when world-saving happens, that should be prevented as much as possible, but it may happen.
Meanwhile Tony Stark’s arc, ongoing for the last ten years, comes to a crashing low. He’s driven to protect those he cares about by controlling everything, excising problems away by sheer force of will, not sacrifice. When Cap noted in The Avengers that Tony wasn’t the type to lay down on a wire, he quipped, “I think I’d just cut the wire.”
Tony does this because he deeply cares about his friends. He has a special relationship with Spider-Man, whom he’s mentored and who tags along in space to fight Thanos. If you’ve seen the last few minutes of the film, you know exactly how that turns out, and as the last minutes are kind of this film’s point, SPOILER ALERT going forward.
Tony loses everything after doing his absolute darnedest to stop it. He puts everything into a powerful attack on Thanos, but it barely touches the giant. “All that for a drop of blood.” Thanos is too big for any one of our heroes. He’s too big for all of our heroes. We know this not only because they lose, horribly, but because of Doctor Strange’s revelation that they only defeat Thanos once amid an astronomical amount of possible outcomes.
And let’s talk briefly about Strange’s plan. The ghost of a smile on the good Doctor’s face when Thanos takes his Time Stone is barely noticeable, but it’s there. Somehow, the Avengers’ ultimate success against Thanos depends on Thanos winning now. Without the Time Stone Thanos would not have been able to rewind time and complete his rock collection by tearing the Mind Stone from Vision’s suddenly reanimated corpse.
Tony’s left devastated by this loss, but Cap’s reaction is arguably more telling. He sits, shell-shocked on the ground, and when his remaining allies ask him what’s happened, he can only utter one bewildered, horrified curse: “Oh, God.”
This from the man who berated his team about their language a few short years ago. He put all his effort into one big sacrifice play to save the world, a move that had worked multiple times before, and came up short for the first time in his career.
And we feel his pain. For an audience that’s seen the Avengers overcome impossible odds over and over for a decade, to have them suffer an apparent loss is myth-breaking at its apex. It’s Ronda Rousey losing to Holly Holm, America pulling out of Vietnam, and God dying on a cross.
But like that last example, if we’re to believe Strange, it’s loss by design.
There’s no wasted space or line in this movie. Everything is so deftly and tightly wound that it feels consequential, weighty. It handles its gigantic cast of characters with a mastery that feels earned and appropriate, giving everyone a signature moment or two, and displaying a truly impressive understanding of what makes each hero (and villain) so unique. This sometimes leaves viewers breathless, skewing the pacing, but ultimately works.
The Marvel universe feels complete for the first time in this film, drawn together by Thanos’s galaxy-spanning quest. Threads begin to connect, and characters interact with each other in hilarious ways. The action and feats of strength on display are Herculean, befitting this penultimate chapter of what’s now termed “the Infinity Saga” by MCU overlord Kevin Feige.
The film itself is near-perfect. Its ending is devastating, a shocking ten minutes of terror if you’ve grown up with these characters.